There are nearly one million EU citizens living in London, and almost 100,000 are aged 60 or over, according to Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London.
It was partly against this background that we organised a conference on “Invisible communities: Working with older people from Europe and beyond”, with the Social Care Workforce Research Unit (SCWRU) at Kings College London and Making Research Count.
At the conference attention was also drawn to the fact that a much wider range of communities are included in the ‘other white’ and ‘other’ census categories.
The conference chair, Professor Jill Manthorpe (SCWRU), spoke of a “Eurovision”, rather than a European Union approach to reaching and including these communities. She highlighted that as distinct groups, they are too often invisible to local services and in discussions about ageing.
So the question to be addressed was: are older people from these communities facing particular problems?
As examples, we heard fascinating presentations about older Scandinavians and older Turkish, Turkish Cypriot and Alevi/Kurdish people in London. People from these communities had widely differing experiences.
Older Norwegian women who spoke to Professor Karen Christensen (University of Bergen), had mainly positive experiences of living in London and had not felt discriminated against. Many were in good health, active socially and in the community and not (yet?) worried about age-related problems.
On the other hand the Turkish, Turkish Cypriot and Alevi/Kurdish people described by Dr Shereen Hussein of SCWRU, had much more difficult experiences.
Many had worked in informal employment for cash wages within their own community and ended up with no pension entitlement or social security record, not speaking English and socially isolated.
As older people, some had made progress in overcoming these difficulties with support from services, but some felt hemmed in by language barriers and cumulative social isolation.
These different examples showed the importance of gender, socio-economic position, family and social relations within migrant communities, alongside possibly more obvious issues such as language barriers, immigration status and discrimination.
Drawing together different strands, Dr Nan Greenwood (St George’s University of London and Kingston University), highlighted how little research exists which draws together the implications of age and belonging to different ethnic groups. Some of the ‘other white’ groups were particularly invisible in the research.
Dr Greenwood also drew attention to the range of health issues that are identified for particular BME groups, whatever the data limitations in linking ethnicity and age.
Jean Lambert MEP told delegates that despite the European Union developing and increasing rights for people moving between member states - ignorance and official inertia often stops people from enjoying these rights in practice and this could have very harmful effects on older people. Public attitudes to people coming from European Union countries are also changing for the worse, she said.
So what can be done to tackle the problems that these presentations revealed?
Under the Equality Act, public authorities have duties to promote equality, and this includes for older people from all ethnic groups.
Jo Moriarty of SCWRU, introduced a report which SCWRU has produced for Age UK. She explained the implications of the Equality Act on the delivery of services for older people, such as falls prevention, day services, Home from Hospital, befriending and handyperson schemes.
The report entitled ‘Diversity in older people and access to services – an evidence review’ aims to help organisations to become more aware and improve their practice.
I found the information presented very thought-provoking and it seemed that many participants felt the same. There were valuable contributions based on anecdotes from the past which highlighted the implications of society’s perceptions and understanding of the ethnic ‘other’.
For example, there was the story of the Anglo-Indian actress, whose white Caucasian appearance, led many to assume that the older Indian woman who accompanied her wherever she went, was her coat dresser. There is still speculation as to whether this darker skinned woman, was in fact her mother.
Another case highlighted how a Caucasian looking woman of half African descent died from sickle cell anaemia, because doctors misdiagnosed her illness as a result of mistaken assumptions about her ethnicity, which they had based purely on her appearance.
Although it is rare that we come across such cases today, we are still getting to grips with the notion of the European ‘white other’. It comes across that many organisations know that there are European or ‘other white’ older people in their area but some are at an early stage in addressing the implications.
The question that also remains to be answered is about what spending cuts will mean for work with these communities?
All of the presentations at the conference are online on the King’s College London website at http://bit.ly/Xsbk4W